“The way to find freedom from difficult emotions is to find it right within the feelings themselves,” writes Andy Karr in his new book, Into the Mirror. Here, he shares a practice for locating and working with difficult feelings in the subtle body to ultimately heal them.
Photo by Puwadon Sang-ngernIn the modern world we often treat feelings like distant relations whom we only acknowledge when we see their posts on Facebook or Twitter. Some feelings seem like annoying younger siblings, who won’t leave us alone while we play a game or watch a movie. We squeeze and cuddle other feelings like cute, little infants—until they spit up on our nice, clean clothes. We are heady people. There is so much emphasis on thinking in our upbringing that we are often numb from the neck down.
Acknowledging feelings is the first step in working with them.
It’s ironic that many of us are able to know our feelings intellectually but unable to feel them directly. How did we get here? This could go back to our childhood. Maybe our parents’ love was conditional on our behavior and our achievements. They showered us with affection when we did well, withheld warmth or punished us when we didn’t do well or misbehaved, or just ignored us altogether. Maybe we were rejected and bullied by the cool kids or frequently embarrassed in front of our peers. We might have been traumatized by life-threatening illness, or damaging relationships, or loneliness. Some of us experience prolonged stress that comes from pushing ourselves to please others. Some of us have unrelenting work and career pressures that put us continually on the defensive.
There is little in our culture that encourages us to relate to these painful feelings simply and directly—quite the contrary. We are taught countless methods for analyzing, rationalizing, and avoiding our feelings. Our lives are all about doing, accomplishing, making progress. However we might feel, we are taught: Just get on with it. Relating directly to feelings seems too intense, too sharp, too penetrating.
At the first glimmers of fear, agitation, or embarrassment, we learn to smother the feelings with discursiveness, anesthetize them with intoxicants, suppress them with ignorance, or turn to our various screens for distraction. Instead of feeling the feelings, we end up experiencing attenuated, conceptualized versions of feelings. The obstructed and congested feelings become fixed into distorted psychosomatic patterns that disturb our bodies and our minds. These become long-festering wounds that manifest as physical disorders and mental neuroses. These patterns color our outlook on life, our images of ourselves, and our relationships with the people around us. If the distortions and blockages are great enough, they can lead to breakdowns and even psychosis.
The intellect is incapable of healing these wounds. This is not something you can solve by figuring it out. You won’t be able to loosen the knots or remove the blockages with the thinking mind because the thinking mind is part of the problem. It is only by entering directly into the world of feelings that healing can begin.
The Subtle Body
Feelings manifest in definite locations and travel along regular pathways in our bodies. These locations and pathways are sometimes called the subtle body, but they are not anatomical features or physical structures. You won’t find them by examining the body under a microscope. Although meditators sometimes visualize the subtle body in various shapes and colors, the subtle body is not a collection of esoteric symbols hidden beneath the skin.
The subtle body is the locus of emotional experience. This is where you meet feelings face-to-face. But you won’t be able to know the subtle body in an analytical way—“Is it real?” “Does it exist?” “What is it made of ?” All these questions are part of the intellect’s way of knowing. They prevent you from directly encountering feelings and the subtle body. The only way to feel the feelings is to drop thinking and let awareness rest gently on the textures of feelings themselves.
When you do this, the first thing you will probably experience is fear. This might deflect you and set off a chain reaction of emotionality and discursiveness. That’s normal. You don’t need to be afraid of the fear. Although it seems like experiencing fear will cause you harm, fear will not damage you. If it pushes you away, try to gently drop back into contact with the feelings of fear. Try to observe where the feelings are located. Examine the texture of fear and its dimensions. If the fear freaks you out, don’t be discouraged. Be gentle. Give yourself time. You can learn to work with fear.
When you enter the world of feelings, you might experience numbness instead of fear. If you do, feel what the numbness is like. What is the texture of the numbness? Try to rest right within that.
You will encounter all sorts of feelings. Feel them. Don’t try to know them or understand them with thinking mind. Touch them lightly. Settle with the feelings. Connect with them without narration or judgment of any kind. Just be, and let the feelings be.
The feelings might open up, but if you approach them with an agenda of making them change or transform, they will solidify and become harder and more persistent. The way to find freedom from difficult emotions is to find it right within the feelings themselves. When you see that you are trying to get rid of feelings, feel that impulse and let it go. Healing begins when you change your attitude toward difficult feelings and welcome them to stay as long as they like.
How to Practice
You can work with your subtle body, both within meditation sessions and in daily life. When you are meditating and notice feelings of discomfort, you can hit pause on the meditation technique and work with the feelings directly.
Begin the subtle body practice by dropping thinking and letting awareness rest directly on the feelings. Gently stay with the feelings if they push back. Rest with the feelings. If you find yourself distracted and lost in narration, judging or thinking about why you have these feelings, let go of the discursive activity and return to experiencing just the texture of the feelings.
Don’t force anything. Recognize when you want to make the feelings go away or transform them into something more pleasant. Feel that, and then settle back into whatever you’re feeling. If the feelings open up and relax, so be it. If they don’t open up and relax, so be it. Just be with whatever is happening in the subtle body. When the feelings diminish or shift, go back to the meditation technique. If they don’t diminish or shift, that is also all right. If you struggle with feelings, they only become more solid and painful.
When you are not meditating and difficult feelings arise, you might be tempted to ignore them and push through with whatever you are doing. Don’t do it! It is far better to take at least a few moments to do this subtle body practice. If you are about to have a difficult conversation with someone, for example, it’s natural to have uncomfortable feelings. If you try to suppress the feelings and get on with the conversation, the feelings will distort your perceptions and your communications. If you can spend just a couple of moments touching in with the subtle body, the feelings won’t be driving the bus. That doesn’t mean they will go away, but there will be some space around them and this will provide room for intelligence to arise so that you can really be with the other person.
Sometimes you will feel very stressed, and start reciting the mantra “So much to do, so little time.” Agitation, anxiety, and speediness will build up in your subtle body. You might be able to temporarily relieve yourself of these feelings with exercise, yoga, or various pacifying and distracting activities, but once these feelings accumulate, if you don’t work with them directly, they tend to persist. Acknowledging feelings is the first step in working with them. Once you acknowledge them, locate where they are in your subtle body, and spend time making friends with them with this subtle body practice.
From Into the Mirror: A Buddhist Journey through Mind, Matter, and the Nature of Reality by Andy Karr © 2023 by Andy Karr. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. www.shambhala.com